There’s more, and it’s worth reading the whole thread. (And oh yeah, you can also find me on Twitter where I shill books and talk writing and culture). I’m glad Corey discussed Robert Jordan, as he was one of the first authors that came to mind when I first saw this thread, as an example of both how to mythologize and over-explain.
I’ll let Corey’s discussion of Jordan suffice. All I’ll add is that Jordan’s entire world feels mythological. It has that gravitas Corey laments is missing from much modern fantasy he’s read and, magic system aside, Jordan includes plenty of unexplained mysteries like the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn and their weird powers and realms.
I can agree. One of the most fun aspects about The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien doesn’t really explain who Gandalf and Saruman and Radagast are or why they know magic. Or how their magic works. Or why the elves exist. Or how Sauron has so much power and exists as a giant, flaming eye. Tolkien hints around the edges, and you can learn way more than you ever imagined you could in all the posthumously published material. All you need to know is that Middle Earth has a weight to it, an air of the unexplained, that makes the world feel that much more real.
I get the same sense reading a Conan tale by Robert E. Howard. There is dark magic in the world, and you should be very wary of its practitioners. I got the same sense from Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series as well–Pryrates is a freaky dark magician and the Sithi are basically immortal elves and I don’t need to know why to understand how the story works.
The classic Super NES game Final Fantasy VI gives me a similar sense of mythos: Magic comes from possessing magicite, the crystallized remains of magical creatures known as Espers. But here’s the kicker–there’s no over-explaining about who the Espers are and why they exist. They’re magical creatures who live in another realm. No more is needed.
Final Fantasy VII isn’t de-mythologized per se, but materia–the crystallized essence of mako energy, the energy that powers the planet, isn’t very mythic. And Final Fantasy VIII almost gets there with the Guardian Forces, creatures that become a part of the users mind and impart abilities. That said, all magic can be drawn from other living creatures and even refined from everyday items. It’s cool, and the mechanics aren’t over-explained, but it just doesn’t feel mythic.
The mythic, the sense of wonder, is important in a genre called “fantasy.” The modern trend towards “deconstructing” and “demythologizing” things that humans have been participating in for millennia is ugly and deliberate. “Rationality!” proponents exclaim. “Skepticism!” “An end to superstition!”
Humans need myth. Myth speaks to the unknowable in a way that all the academic theories that are supposed to perfectly explain the world do not. Because there are some things humans will never know. What arrogance to think we’ll ever be able to know everything.
This shouldn’t be a cause for misery. It’s a cause for celebration. When we are actually able to touch the ineffable, we feel it in an indescribable way. Some things, better things, are beyond our comprehension. Myth in all its forms, in addition to religion, helps us get there. As long as it points to the truth.
Of course, this isn’t limited to fantasy. And putting philosophy aside, a sense of the mythic will supercharge your writing with a connection to the deepest human feelings we all share and make your work stand out from the depressing postmodernism we see all around us.
Go ahead. Get mythic.
Update: Commenter, blogger, and fellow author The Frisky Pagan of Emperor’s Notepad published a companion piece to this post, delving deep into magic in general. He makes a lot of excellent points, some bound to be controversial–check it out because there’s some good stuff in there, as usual from his site.